KYIV, Ukraine — Russia is deploying thousands of soldiers to southeastern Ukraine in an effort to secure a key supply line that runs from the eastern Donbas region to Crimea and is threatened by Ukrainian forces positioned in and around the strategically important town of Vuhledar.
The town, which sits at the intersection of the eastern front in the Donetsk region and the southern front in the Zaporizhzhia region, is not far from the only rail line linking the Donbas region and Crimea. That means Ukrainian forces in the area are within striking distance of the tracks, limiting Russia’s ability to move men and equipment between the two fronts and ultimately to achieve its stated aim of capturing the entirety of the Donbas — comprised of Donetsk and Luhansk provinces —and protect the territory it has seized in the south. And it helps explain why curtailing Ukraine’s ability to threaten the railway is of critical importance for Moscow.
“This can be done in only one way — by capturing and occupying Vuhledar, which just ‘hangs’ over this railway line,” said Ivan Yakovina, a Ukrainian journalist. By capturing the “seemingly small and not very significant town,” Mr. Yakovina said, “Russia would have received a wide logistical artery along the entire front line and, accordingly, the ability to quickly and massively transfer troops from one direction to another.”
The State of the War
- A New Assault: Ukrainian officials have been bracing for weeks for a new Russian offensive. Now, they are warning that the campaign is underway, with the Kremlin seeking to reshape the battlefield and seize the momentum.
- Russia’s Soaring Death Toll: The number of Russian troops killed and wounded in Ukraine is approaching 200,000. American and other Western officials say that the figure is a stark symbol of just how badly invasion has gone for the Kremlin.
- In the East: Russian forces are ratcheting up pressure on the beleaguered city of Bakhmut, pouring in waves of fighters to break Ukraine’s resistance in a bloody campaign aimed at securing Moscow’s first significant battlefield victory in months.
- Military Aid: After weeks of tense negotiations, Germany and the United States announced they would send battle tanks to Ukraine. But the tanks alone won’t help turn the tide, and Kyiv has started to press Western officials on advanced weapons like long-range missiles and fighter jets.
In addition to taking control of Donbas, Moscow also is intent on keeping control over the land bridge to Crimea, the peninsula which Russia occupied in 2014. Kyiv’s hold on Vuhledar threatens both goals. Russian forces secured the land bridge to Crimea only after laying siege last year to the port city of Mariupol, which is on the Sea of Azov in southern Ukraine and about 100 miles south of Vuhledar. The town’s importance has not been lost one the Kremlin, which just over a week ago began a furious assault to dislodge the Ukrainians from heavily fortified positions there.
Ukrainian officials said that they had repelled the latest assaults, but warned that Russian forces, bolstered by newly mobilized soldiers, were trying to encircle the town.
“The Russians are not trying to break through the defenses of Vuhledar, but are trying to surround the city from two sides,” the city’s deputy mayor, Maksym Verbovsky, told the Ukrainian media outlet Suspline on Friday. “They managed to advance to some nearby villages, but the Ukrainian military pushed them back to their previous positions.”
The fighting has left yet another Ukrainian city in ruins.
Vuhlear “was destroyed,” Mr. Verbovsky said. “One hundred percent of the buildings were damaged. The entire infrastructure.”
Fewer than 500 civilians and just three children remain, he said, in what had until a year ago been a densely packed industrial town of about 15,000.
Vuhledar takes its name, which translates as “gift of coal,” from the mine on its outskirts. Consisting of a cluster of high-rise apartment complexes extending upward from an empty plain, the town’s elevation, exposure and tall buildings give defenders a distinct advantage.
In November, the Russian Pacific Fleet’s 155th Guards Naval Infantry Brigade was charged with leading an assault on Vuhledar — with reportedly disastrous results. Mediazona, an independent Russian outlet that tracks Russians killed in battle, published an interview with a Russian Marine who said that more than 200 soldiers had been killed in just three days. The reports of the defeat gained enough traction that the Kremlin issued a statement denying the accounts.
Natalia Yermak contributed reporting.